Island artist sees the beauty in everyday people
Classic portraits in oil paint often depict the wealthy and well-known, but award-winning artist Eddie Filer prefers ordinary subjects.
In his 30 years as an artist, Filer has painted nearly 300 portraits of people from his life, including family, friends, neighbors and even strangers who impressed him in fleeting meetings, he said. No subject is too humble, including buskers and homeless people living on the street, he said.
Filer believes it’s important to paint people who wouldn’t normally be the subject of an oil painting, he said.
“I know a lot of artists, and especially young ones, paint celebrities, but that’s not me,” Filer said. “I paint everyday people because their stories are beautiful and deserve to be told.”
That philosophy is evident in Filer’s Texas City studio, where every inch of wall space has a portrait of a person from his life. Artwork is stacked on table tops, easels and the floor. All are photorealistic, with such life and emotion in the subjects’ eyes, it’s easy to feel the small studio is crowded with people.
His interest in art was sparked by one of his teachers at Galveston’s Ball High School, who separated him from a “rowdy” class, placed him in the cafeteria and asked him to copy a classic painting, he said.
“Even though I was only using kid’s acrylic, or maybe tempera paints, I liked what I did and realized I had a talent and could do more,” Filer said.
Soon, he was charging classmates and neighbors $20 a piece to paint their portrait. Three decades on, Filer has hundreds of hours of practice and a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from The University of Houston-Clear Lake. And he can command from $2,500 to $9,000 for a commissioned portrait.
Filer has won about 30 painting and portraiture awards, including a 2017 Certificate of Excellence from the Portrait Society of America. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Glassell School of Art — both in Houston — and in local galleries such as the Galveston Art League. The Bryan Museum in Galveston has acquired one of his few portraits of a celebrity: a painting of island native and boxer Jack Johnson, which is part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Although awards are nice, painting a successful portrait and continuing to improve his craft are more motivating, Filer said.
“A lot of people can paint a photorealistic portrait, but that is not necessarily a true likeness,” Filer said. “I know my painting is successful if a family member says I really captured that person and something about them, like the way they tilt their head.”
Subjects will sit for two to three hours at a time and Filer also uses reference photographs of his subjects. He spends countless hours on a single portrait and will start again if it’s not up to his high standards, he said.
“When you paint someone, first of all, you owe them a likeness but more than that, you owe them a painting,” he said.
Filer likes oil because it allows him to create a 3D effect, he said. But photorealism isn’t his only goal as he aims to communicate a narrative through the colors he uses, the painting’s composition and the elements he chooses to place in the background of his portraits. Each painting tells a story, and behind each image, Filer has a story to share about its creation.
His most recent work includes intimate graphite drawings on paper that speak to shared human experiences. Some are melancholy such as “Good Life,” which shows the effects of age and dementia on his father’s face or “Holding On,” a self-portrait capturing Filer’s vulnerability during a battle with a debilitating disease he has since conquered. Others are more celebratory, including a portrait of his daughter called “A Beautiful Flower” and another called “The Answers Lie Within,” which aims to affirm a young Houston artist’s talent.
Theses drawings and other select works will be on display at the Houston Museum of African American Culture in an exhibition aptly called “My Life and Life Around Me” opening in October.
Curator Dominic Clay said Filer is a highly skilled artist with an eye-opening process who thrives on the different mannerisms, expressions and postures of his subjects.
“Obviously, Eddie is a highly skilled artist,” Clay said. “However, Eddie is also a great mentor, a great father and a great husband. I appreciate Eddie’s willingness to be vulnerable while allowing the audience to peer through the window of his inner-self.”
“My Life and Life Around Me” opens Oct. 6 and runs until Dec. 15. Admission is free to the public at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, 4807 Caroline St.